Her tears flowed as she told her sad story. Her husband was distant toward her, her children rebellious. They were in debt, and now she was having medical problems. As her story unfolded, I became more and more depressed. She would be expecting wise counsel. I could think of nothing to say, as I could not see a way out of her troubles. She finally came to an end and looked at me with a mournful face.
I couldn’t say what I was thinking: “Your case is hopeless. There is no way out.” And so I pulled out a question, primarily to buy time. “Let me get to know you better. Tell me how you became a Christian.” Surprised by the question, her face changed from mournfulness to contemplation, as she thought about it. Then she began to tell her story of finding Jesus. And as that story unfolded, her voice took on an earnest tone and her countenance from looking forlorn to bearing conviction. By the end, she was speaking as though she had come for the purpose of testifying to me of the love of her Savior. She felt better, and I felt better! Maybe there are some answers after all, now that her Savior has been brought into the discussion.
That desperate ploy to buy time has become the most effective tool—along with another question—of moving a person from despair to hope, which is essential in helping her or him move forward in a situation that has seemed hopeless (as well as helped me to get out of my own miry clay). The other question goes like this. “You do have a terrible situation. Other people would even lose their faith after what you have gone through. Why do you still have faith?” They give me that same contemplative look and then begin to testify to the goodness and greatness of their God and Savior. By the end, they are speaking as though they had come to give me counsel in how to keep faith in difficult trials!
These questions do not of themselves solve the problems of the forlorn persons, but they are almost a foolproof method of providing what the individuals need most—hope. They walk in feeling despair. They can see no way out of their dilemma. They are looking for words of wisdom from me. But even if I knew the solutions, they still are not in the right spirit to receive them, especially as most solutions have to do with them making changes in themselves. All the more then they need their focus to move away from their problems to their Lord.
In particular, they need to remember what their Lord has done for them. The elemental problem of us all is that we forget our first love. We forget the time that the love of the Lord was the most powerful experience we had known. We forget how our Lord rescued us and gave us hope in the first place. We have not forgotten the Lord himself. We continue to exercise faith, but over time it becomes more of a habit than a devotion. To put it another way, we need to continually testify to ourselves the gospel that first transfixed and transformed us.
And that is what I give the despairer opportunity to do. As she does so, it cannot but lift her spirit, so that even if the way is still unclear, she is reminded that she is not alone, that her Lord still loves her and will carry her through her trial. I become no longer her hope, but rather her pastor who provides support and maybe some bit of wisdom.
The best support I provide is to express my honest appreciation of her testimony. I have heard either another marvelous salvation story or one of strong faith. I inevitably am able to express my admiration of how strong her faith has remained in the midst of her trial. I will say something like this: “You have come to me thinking that your faith is weak, when I am amazed at how well you have kept your faith through such a trial. God has been good to you.” And this is an honest statement. Indeed, time and time again I have had the Lord strengthen my own faith through these stories of people who have come to me looking for me to strengthen their faith.
But what if the individual does not have a testimony to tell? It is clear that she is more like the elder brother of the prodigal son story—someone who cannot recount a time of understanding the grace of the gospel. Perhaps faith is what she does not have. Then now I have the perfect opening for sharing the gospel. And I am much more comfortable taking an individual through the gospel than trying to resolve the tangled mess that she is in.
Either way, be it a person with faith and a strong testimony or without, the door now opens for me to turn to Scripture that focuses on the love and the work of Christ. Either I am heartening the the person of faith or enlightening the person who has yet to have it. This is what a pastor is best trained to do and is most exciting to do.
There is great need for Christian counselors with the expertise to unravel the problems of life, and the more that a pastor is equipped in this area, so much the better. Even so, what the pastor should be most skilled in doing (and excited to do) is to share with his people the gospel promises and assurances that run through the Scriptures.
His one other great tool is prayer. Philippians 4:6 instructs us to make supplication with thanksgiving. I make the point of beginning every prayer with thanksgiving when praying with and for an individual. If they have given their testimony or spoken of their faith, then that is what I begin with—thanking God for the gospel, thanking him for giving the individual such faith, thanking him for making that individual a testimony in time of trial. I will give thanks for whatever truth was expressed in the Scripture read. Then I can move into requesting the needed help. That prayer then reinforces the individual’s own testimony, as well as the Word read.
There may very well be much more work to do, but at the very least hope has moved into the picture in the form of our Savior. Those questions, followed up with Scripture and prayer, has been an effective means of saying, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.”